In December 1934, a young German scientist attempted to fire a rocket from Lymington golf course in the New Forest, over to the Isle of Wight. He would later be accused by some of being a Nazi spy, but was instead imprisoned by the Gestapo possibly in the belief he’d been co-operating with the British.
The story of Gerhard Zucker is an incredible one, but it’s entirely true.
Born in Germany in 1908, Zucker was in his early twenties when he started experiments in sending mail by rocket. This might sound implausible, but it wasn’t something that Zucker was alone in attempting. As far back as 1810, German author Heinrich von Kleist had suggested using rockets to deliver the post. There had also been attempts to do so in the early 1900s, with varying levels of success.
Between 1931 and 1933, Zucker travelled Germany with his rocket design, claiming it was a game changer for mail delivery. Sadly for him, his tests and demonstrations were never very successful. He even once tried to sell his idea to Nazi officials. What Zucker didn’t know, was that the Nazis were already doing their own secret rocketry experiments in the pre-war period, but far more successfully than he could ever wish to be.
With nobody willing to invest in Zucker’s mail delivering rocket, he tried his luck at the APEX International Airmail Exhibition in London. It was here he met a benefactor prepared to invest £50,000 in the mail rocket idea. The two men joined in business to create the British Rocket Syndicate. They arranged demonstrations around the UK to show how Zucker’s rockets could deliver mail from the mainland to islands.
Between May and July of 1934, four demonstrations were given around the country. Yet again, the young Gerhard Zucker did not deliver, both figuratively and literally. None of the demonstrations worked as he wanted them to, and no local postal service decided to adopt his rocket mail system.
Not to be deterred, and ever the plucky trier, in December 1934 Zucker and the British Rocket Syndicate turned up the New Forest. The idea was to deliver mail from the mainland to the Isle of Wight, with the golf course at Lymington being the chosen launchpad. Zucker planned to fire a steel rocket from a frame, landing in the water in front of Fort Victoria in Yarmouth on the northwest coastline of the island, where it could be collected by motorboat.
Wednesday December 5 was the date chosen for the test. Six hundred dummy letters were packed into the rocket in front of a crowd of spectators watching form both Lymington and across the water at Yarmouth. The Portsmouth Evening News reported on the event.
“The rocket, which resembled a small torpedo, weighed 18 pounds, and it was estimated it would reach a speed of 1,000 miles an hour. The distance from Lymington to Yarmouth was to have been covered in two seconds. The anxious watchers at Yarmouth saw a great cloud of smoke spread out from Lymington, but no trace of the rocket could be seen.”
Further press reports claimed Zucker’s demonstration has been foiled by strong southerly wind. Once fired, the rocket, hurtled from the frame, zig-zagged in the air, and then turned sharply in a westward direction. A few seconds later it crashed and sunk in mud on the Pennington Marshes, a mile away from Lymington golf course.
You can see film footage of the experiment on the British Pathé news website or on YouTube below.
You might think this would be the last people would hear of Gerhard Zucker. The general concerns appeared to be that his future wasn’t in rocket mail.
But his future was set to take a few twists and turns. A bit like his rockets.
Sometime afterwards, Zucker was arrested after leaving gunpowder in a railway station cloakroom, presumably to be used with his mail rocket experiments. He was imprisoned for two days.
He was later deported back to Germany on a charge of defrauding the Post Office with fake stamps and being a danger to national security due to how dangerous his rocket experiments were. Rumours also circulated that he had been a Nazi spy gathering information on ports to be used by German U-boats in the event of invasion.
Poor Gerhard Zucker’s luck was about to get worse. In 1936 he was arrested by the Gestapo in Germany. Some reports say this was due to a suspicion he had been collaborating with the British and sharing German rocket secrets. Other reports state he was imprisoned in Germany for fraud. Either way, he was released after sixteen months.
He joined the Luftwaffe during the Second World War, and after peace was declared, became a furniture dealer.
He was not one to give up. His love of mail rockets never left him. But neither did his propensity for failure.
In 1964 one of his rocket experiments exploded, killing two schoolboys. He was jailed for manslaughter and was released after just six months.
He died in 1985.
References & credits
- Coventry Evening Telegraph
- Portsmouth Evening News